Like most of Africa's cats the lion has evolved to live in many different habitats throughout the continent. Most prominent in our minds would be the classic open savannah, stretches of grassland that go on for as long as the eye can see with only a few trees here and there. This is where the lion was born, they evolved from these open savannahs of Eastern Africa. Grasses bring herds, which means prey and these savannahs are often the best places for lions to spend their time in the rainy season.
Although grasslands may be seen as a very successful place to live with its lush grasses during the wet season during the dry season the very same grasslands become empty scrublands. Due to the nature of the continent the lion has adapted to live in almost all corners of the continent using each area to their own advantage, adapting to the needs of the environment, changing it's behaviour to suit the differing areas. Lions are most commonly found in open savannah and the adjoining bush. The short bushes characterful of the continent are the ideal place to seek refuge in the hot sun, to keep cubs out of harms way and to stalk any potential prey.
Woodlands are great places to seek refuge if there are young cubs around, if new males are taking over the pride lionesses may go to these woodlands to shelter their cubs from the fighting. Lions are no stranger to desert life and they can still be found throughout regions such as Namibia, where a famous population of desert lions are researched and studied. Lions would have originally lived and travelled all over northern Africa right up to Egypt but their numbers all over the north have been eradicated.
Africa may not have seasons but the dry and wet seasons can vary dramatically and often sparseness of food can be an issue in the dryer months as prey species migrate and travel to follow the new grass, lions however specifically those in prides tend to stay put in certain areas and will remain dependant on non-migratory prey species once the grass has been depleted. Nomadic males however are not tied down to any specific region may follow the herds as they migrate to make the most out of the valuable resource.
An Adaptable Predator
Vast open plains and rocky out-crops are always seen as the most iconic of lion habitats. The three top pictures show the large open plains of the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the more vegetated areas found along the riverbed, which are more likely to be home to mothers and young cubs. On the bottom left, the Swara Plains in Kenya is pictured and is just one example of this. The lions have the opportunity to have extensive views over the area to spot other lions or their prey as they make their way past. In contrast to the lush grasses seen throughout Eastern Africa. Lions can also be found in the Namibian Deserts shown bottom right, a small population they are surviving. Here food is not readily available but other competition is also scarce. It is a tough life here with lions spending more time nomadic than in the larger prides seen in the open plains.
The Asiatic Lion living in the top of Northern India in the Gir Forest, this area of temperate forest is one of the most dense areas of lion habitat. Here the lions live in much smaller family groups. With smaller prey species and in a habitat almost completely covered in trees and scrub living in large groups would not be beneficial. A very small population of lions are still found in the jungles of West and Central Africa showing the true extent of how far lions will live and the huge difference in habitat in which lions have historically succeeded.
All of these areas may experience very high temperatures easily souring into the 30's and 40's (degree Celsius) however many places in Africa also experience very cold nights entering minus temperatures. The lion is therefore very well adapted to experience many different habitats but also various temperatures night and day.
Life Away From The Wild
Lions are incredibly adaptable and can become very adept tree climbers. Pictures below show lions in a UK Safari Park where their reserve is mainly ancient woodland. Here they have learnt the skills to climb trees to quite tall levels and the art of how to get back down (albeit a bit slower than climbing up) these tree climbing skills have been past through the pride with younger individuals taking the lead of the older more experienced ones. Tree climbing however is more common with the females than the males with the latter being far too heavy and not as flexible making it harder to summon the grace needed for tree climbing.
In Zoos and Safari Parks in the UK lions show their talent for adaption by thriving in winter temperatures. Modern lion remains have been found as far west as France and Germany, where caves would have provided refuge in the colder areas, zoo houses and shelters are built to provide a place draft and damp free. However lions will happily spend much of their time in their outside enclosures and will grow noticeably thicker coats to cope with the colder temperatures. In the wild however a cold season seen in Europe would see lions having to eat more regularly in order to conserve their fat levels as they are used up to keep their bodies warm.
Huge thanks go to Pete Cooper of Pete Cooper Wildlife for the use of two photos seen on this page from his trips to Africa, Kenya and Namibia in particular.
Historically lions have been able to survive in the savannahs from which they were born, deserts, jungles and the mountains of Northern Africa. Now as their population is in great decline many of these areas are now without the lions that used to roam them. Nevertheless we should not forget how adaptable this species truly is and the resilience in which they conquered most of the African continent and further afield.